In 2004, the International Rugby Board (IRB), recognizing that North America lacked an effective high-performance rugby competition, used its strategic-investment dollars to create a tournament known as the North America Four (NA4).
The tournament pitted two Canadian teams of identified high-performance players against two similar sides from the United States. The hope was that such a competition might eventually draw the attention of private and commercial investment and lay the groundwork for the first true professional rugby league on the continent.
Success came very slowly at first, and the project never truly took the shape its backers in the IRB imagined.
Today, after almost a decade of hard work, those Canadian regional teams are the equal of their Argentinian provincial counterparts, while the United States is seeing an explosion in the growth of the Sevens game, as well as accompanying commercial and media attention.
The admission of Rugby Sevens into the Summer Olympics in 2016 has made certain that domestic government funding has begun to flow into athlete development and player participation in both countries is reaching new highs.
These accomplishments are impressive, but admittedly fall far short of readying North Americans to compete at the top levels of international rugby. For that, a domestic professional league of the highest standard is required.
But where to look?
Bleacher Report published a recent interview with Mr. David Jordan, head of the RaboDirect Pro 12 competition in Europe. Mr. Jordan made clear that his organization has no interest in further expansion, in North America or otherwise.
The CEO of SANZAR, Mr. Greg Peters, made news himself recently in his own interview with The Australian, in which he claimed SANZAR was open to the possibility of further expansion in Asia or The Americas, providing the right opportunity presented itself.
To try and get a read on the likelihood of that scenario, we sat down with Mr. Peters to discuss the idea of adding to his existing stable of Super Rugby franchises.
The existing Super Rugby agreement ends following 2015, so admittedly, any discussion of expansion must be considered to be in its very early stages; still, Mr. Peters believes his competition is structured to allow for future growth.
The nature of our competition is quite unique. When we first set up Super Rugby, which is what we began calling our competition in 2011, that was the first year we had a conference structure, which is something that is probably quite familiar in North American sports.
Super Rugby currently has three conferences, one in New Zealand, one in Australia and one in South Africa. This structure would allow us to either introduce new teams to conferences, or introduce entirely new conferences into the competition.
So the unique nature of our competition really allows us some flexibility to consider what the future might look like.
Mr. Peters went on to explain why he felt that the opportunity had appeared for the idea of expansion and what would be required before any such move could be considered.
What we see is that the introduction of Rugby Sevens into the Olympics has been a great platform for the growth of the game generally. Not for a moment would I suggest that either Canada or the United States would be new rugby markets, because both countries have been playing for years. However, when you're talking about an professional league, competing at the Super Rugby level, the recent growth we have seen does open up certain possibilities.
I need to stress that we are at the very early stages of considering anything of this kind, but in terms of the things we would need to consider going forward, firstly I believe we would need to look at on-field competitiveness. Without that you are looking at issues, as you try to introduce new teams into what has been a very competitive competition.
Secondly, you would have to see a strong commercial program via broadcasting and the wider commercial functions that would support a team and drive revenues through the wider SANZAR organization.
You must remember that SANZAR is not the IRB. Our imperatives are not to grow the game globally, our imperatives are to grow for the benefit of the existing SANZAR stakeholders.
Mr. Peters' point is well-taken. For while admitting Argentina into The Rugby Championship tournament has seemed to be a positive move for all involved, the Super Rugby competition—being a purely professional league—is even focused on a strong commercial product.
SANZAR's existing relationship with Argentina, which was forged mainly by that country's continuing development on the field, may very well have opened the door for wider SANZAR interest in the Americas, which, on the whole, may be able to provide the commercial success Mr. Peters and his organization may be looking for.
We are indeed working with Argentina, who have expressed interest in joining the Super Rugby competition as well. That isn't without its challenges logistically. Perhaps—I stress perhaps—North America is part of that solution. They could possibly link up with an Argentina side in some sort of new conference or even possibly form a block with South African teams. That is something we would like to explore.
Those comments certainly give heart to those who would like to see Super Rugby teams here in North America; however, there remain many pieces that would have to fall into place. One of the other visions that is out there—one that would perhaps be slightly easier to initiate—would be the idea of a second-tier of Super Rugby, where Canadian, American and Argentinian teams could all compete for the right to win promotion to the existing Super Rugby set-up.
That wasn't something that seemed high on the agenda at the SANZAR offices.
A second-tier competition isn't completely off the radar, the problem is making it pay. It has traditionally been difficult with second-tier competitions to drive the revenue necessary to cover the logistics involved. Having said that, we have found that for Super Rugby teams to be successful, you often need a third-tier competition like the Currie Cup in South Africa or the ITM Cup in New Zealand.
And with that our story comes full circle, back to domestic high-performance competitions that were originally funded by the IRB in Canada and elsewhere. If these competitions end up producing more athletes like Jebb Sinclair—a Canadian international that played on last year's Currie Cup winning side in South Africa—then the vision Mr. Peters has laid out may soon be closer to a reality.
But how to judge when that standard has been reached?
The initial interview Greg Peters gave to The Australian spoke of SANZAR's interest in seeing how Canada and the U.S.A. fared in this summer's Pacific Nations Cup against Tonga, Fiji and Japan. When Mr. Peters was asked about how SANZAR planned to go about making their assessment of that tournament, he made it clear that it was based on quality of play, not quantitative results.
It's a measure of the quality of the rugby. Our coaches are fairly good at measuring that. What is the standard of the individual athletes within the teams? Are there Super Rugby coaches casting their eyes over that competition and finding talent? We are already having Super Rugby coaches looking at Argentinean players because of how they've played in The Rugby Championship.
The most important thing remains the quality of the commercial program put together to support a potential team.
Super Rugby is about tribalism, so what we have to do is assess the community interest on the part of rugby fans, and potential rugby fans, in some of these new markets.
One of the things that I found interesting about my conversation with Mr. Peters is how countries like Canada fit into the equation. Argentina, all would admit, have one of the most competitive national teams on the planet and the United States has the greatest potential for growth and the largest economy in the world; so what can Canadian fans take away from all of this potential expansion discussion?
It's true that we will need to study and know more about the markets in each of the areas going forward; however, Canada is still a very large market. They are a fine rugby nation and have a strong reputation. If indeed we were to look at something like an Americas conference, you would need to place teams across the Americas in order to have sufficient numbers of franchises.
And with that, it seems, North American rugby fans have as much of an answer in regard to potential Super Rugby expansion as they are likely to get at the moment.
Fans in Canada, Argentina and the United States can now look forward to the year 2016 and be doubly excited. Not only will that be the year in which the sport of rugby makes its glorious return to the Olympics in Rio, but elsewhere in South America and across the North American continent, that year might just contain the day professional rugby finally makes its debut.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all cited materials were obtained firsthand.
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